ITALY was hit by a news blackout yesterday as journalists went on strike against a bill curbing the use of wiretapping proposed by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The government says the wiretap law is needed to protect the privacy of individuals from arbitrary investigation, but critics say it will hamper both the fight against organised crime and press reporting on corruption.
The bill, due to be voted on in parliament on July 29, would tighten conditions under which magistrates can order a wiretap and ban newspapers from using transcripts until preliminary investigations are complete, something which can take years.
The FNSI press union deemed the strike a “day of silence” in order to “show the kind of silence that the law would impose”. The proposed law would also prohibit the publication of transcripts of recordings.
Starting at 7am news wires came to halt and Internet news sites stopped updates, while all-news TV channels switched to pre-recorded programmes, airing only a lean mid-day newscast and promising and evening one.
Most dailies did not appear and the few exceptions included the right-wing Libero and Il Tempo and smaller papers Il Foglio and Il Riformista.
Il Giornale, a large right-wing daily owned by Berlusconi’s brother, also hit newsstands in spite of its editor’s perplexities about the law.
“We are not satisfied with the gag law,” editor-in-chief Vittorio Feltri said in a video message on Il Giornale’s website, adding, however, that he found it “wrong to gag ourselves, losing the only means that allows us to speak to our readers”.
In June the Italian Senate approved the bill, which must now be passed by the lower house Chamber of Deputies and receive President Giorgio Napolitano’s signature before becoming law.
One of the bill’s provisions – heavily criticised by legal and police authorities – is the requirement that a three-judge panel approve successive three-day extensions to an initial 75-day warrant to wiretap conversations.
The bill also calls for fines of up to €464,700 for journalists or editors who publish transcripts of wiretaps in the media. The measure exempts mafia and terrorism investigations from the restrictions.
The centre-right backs the measure as necessary for the protection of privacy, citing frequent leaks in the media of wiretap transcripts – notably involving the flamboyant Prime Minister Berlusconi.
“In Italy, we are all spied on. There are 150,000 telephones that are tapped and it is intolerable,” Berlusconi recently said.
In June, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe slammed the bill, saying it “could seriously hinder investigative journalism in Italy.”
Last week, several thousand people rallied in Rome against the “gag law” in hopes that mounting public pressure might trigger changes to the bill during its passage in the lower house.
In the Summer of 2007, journalists had already gone on strike against a similar bill, proposed and then abandoned by the then centre-left government, calling for the ban on publication of wiretapped conversations obtained over the course of judicial investigations.
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